Nine months later, the relevance of 'Sharpiegate' lingers

Remember "Sharpiegate" from September? The details of Trump's NOAA fiasco are still coming into sharper focus.
Image: UPresident Donald Trump holds an early projection map of Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4, 2019.
President Donald Trump holds an early projection map of Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office on Sept. 4, 2019.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

Nine months ago, as Hurricane Dorian approached the United States, Donald Trump published a tweet that included Alabama among the states "most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated." Soon after, the National Weather Service told the public the opposite. When news outlets noted the president's error, Trump took great offense, insisting he was right, facts be damned.

It set in motion a series of increasingly ridiculous events, which included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issuing a written statement endorsing the Republican's false claims, while also criticizing professionals at the National Weather Service for having told the truth. As part of the same fiasco, Trump displayed a map in the Oval Office in which he literally took a pen and drew a bump onto an NOAA forecast map in order to bend reality to his will.

The mess became known as "Sharpiegate."

Oddly enough, the story was back in the news yesterday. The Washington Post reported yesterday:

An investigation conducted on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that agency leadership violated its scientific integrity policy through actions that led to the release of a statement that backed President Trump's false statement about the path of Hurricane Dorian, according a new report.... The report, whose findings were accepted by NOAA's leadership and released Monday, found that Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator, and former NOAA deputy chief of staff and communications director Julie Kay Roberts twice violated codes of the agency's scientific integrity policy amid their involvement in the Sept. 6 statement.

A panel assembled by the National Academy of Public Administration, a good-governance non-profit, was responsible for conducting the investigation. In theory, the findings could affect Neil Jacobs' nomination to a leading NOAA post, though it's unclear whether Senate Republicans will care.

But as it turns out, there may yet be additional revelations. The Post's report added that the same mess is facing scrutiny from the Commerce Department's inspector general and the House Science Committee, both of which are expected to release reports.

And that's probably a good thing, since there were some questions surrounding the controversy that were never quite resolved. The New York Times reported in September, for example, that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the NOAA, threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency unless the NOAA agreed to endorse the president's false claims. As we discussed at the time, Ross' office denied the accuracy of the report, though if the Times was right, it led to a series of related questions about public safety, scientific integrity, Trump's war on reality, and weaponizing federal resources for political reasons.

The NYT had a report soon after on the White House allegedly having a direct role in ordering relevant officials to do the wrong thing. Similarly, the Washington Post added that the president personally told his staff that the NOAA needed to correct a National Weather Service tweet that didn't need correcting. It was this presidential instruction, the article added, that "led chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to call Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to tell him to fix the issue."

Yesterday's report moved the ball forward, but I'd still love to know the answers to some of the lingering questions.